Reader Question: Funding Strategy for Pre-tenure Faculty

As Saturday is always the slowest, most boring day on the web, presumably because everyone is grocery shopping/watching kids play sports/mowing or plowing, depending on season/doing laundry, I will do my best to post something on Saturdays (at least every other Saturday) going forward.

MechEngPhD asked:

… I’d be particularly interested in hearing about your pre-tenure funding strategy, e.g.: Thoughts on focusing on a few agencies you expect will become your go-tos vs. broadly applying to any relevant call, even if you don’t see much long term funding potential for your work at the agency putting out the call? For early career awards with 3 opportunities to apply while on the tenure track, any particular timing strategy?

Unfortunately, and not at all surprisingly, there is no one right answer that will guarantee oodles of funding. I will try my best and bear in mind that I cannot really give advice on most biomedical fields (those that rely on NIH funding). DrugMonkey’s blog is the place for NIH folks.

The answer depends on how far along you are (green, straight from grad school (yes, it’s still possible in some STEM fields) or a seasoned postdoc/research scientist with years of proposal-writing experience), how generous your startup is, and how clear you are on the few big 5-to-10-year projects that are supposed to make your name, because those are what you need to write about for your young investigator awards.

For instance, let’s start with NSF CAREER. I would recommend submitting to a regular NSF program once or twice (or more times) before the first CAREER try. Maybe you get funded, but even if not, you will get some feedback and hone your proposal-writing skills. If you do get funded, great! You can still try for CAREER in your second half of the tenure track. I’ve known people who got it in year 5, so it’s a nice chunk of change to ride across the tenure line and into the first associate-prof years. I did get CAREER on my first try; I wrote it in the summer after year 1 and after having spent the year writing collaborative grants with colleagues. I was fresh from the PhD and without any grant-writing experience. Even all these years later, NSF remains a mystery. I have 100% success rate when I am the second fiddle to a male experimentalist on a collaborative grant, but a much more modest success rate when I apply by myself; based on my experience on panels with commonly 100% male PIs on the proposal roster, I am probably the only female PI when I submit and, if only 1 or 2 proposals get funded, I find it hard to believe that I will be the one championed the most vocally; in fact, I think all or nearly all of my single-PI NSF declinations were Recommended and often ranked near the top of the Recommended batch. It is hard not to wonder if I’d have an easier time jumping to Highly Recommended (and thus most likely funded) with the same proposal, but a different set of genitals.

But I digress. Back to the topic at hand.

NSF CAREER funding rate is higher than for the regular programs; the applicant pool in MUCH, MUCH smaller; it’s 5 years of funding with a lot of freedom in what you do, so this is an award to which I highly recommend you give your best shot (or three). Which project is appropriate for CAREER? Ask yourself what you want to be famous for 10 years for now; what you would work on if someone gave you half a million and told you to use it for your craziest, most high risk/high reward project. That’s CAREER. In contrast, proposals for the regular program are smaller in scope and more specific in the question they address.

Bottom line: Submit to both regular program and CAREER, but different types and scope of projects. Getting a PECASE hrough NSF doesn’t come with extra money. (PECASE = Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers; awardees are chosen from the recipients of young investigator awards across agencies who are nominated by their awarding agencies.)

As for DOD agencies, you should not even try without program-director enthusiasm. For these, I would say spend the first year or so getting good prelim data using your startup and travel to DC, talk to program directors, send them white papers until you find someone who is really enthusiastic about bringing you on. That’s the person who will be likely fight for your young investigator award (as all program managers have to make strong cases to their higher-ups and brass for funding). I did get one of the DOD young investigator awards back in the day.

Bottom line: Alignment with an individual program director’s vision and programmatic needs is critical for both regular and young investigator program. The benefit is possibility of long-term funding and generally larger grants than NSF. DOD awards sometimes come with more oversight/frequent reporting/more micromanagement, but this varies among agencies and even among different program directors, and you might  not even mind it too much if the money is good (which it is) and you’re not allergic to micromanagement (unlike moi). Getting a PECASE through DOD agencies DOES come with extra money.

DOE is extremely competitive, regular program or young investigator. For the regular program, what happened with me is that I submitted for years, received good reviews but no money, grew frustrated, but then made it in through a super competitive specific call that led to a transition into the regular program. Their young investigator program didn’t start until I was in my last year on the tenure track, but it’s exceedingly competitive and it carries no guarantee of transitioning into the regular program.

Bear in mind that, unlike with papers, with proposals you can submit to multiple agencies, you just can’t receive money from multiple federal sources for the same work. DOE will explicitly encourage you to submit to multiple places. It is perfectly fine to get funded by one and withdraw the proposal from the other.

Bottom line: DOE is great, but quite hard to get into and might require several years of sustained effort to break in. I love it because it’s in many ways similar to NSF with their focus on great science (I have experience with DOE BES) and the flexibility they provide to the PI, but with more money and with potential for long-term funding. Getting a PECASE through DOE doesn’t come with extra money.

In response to the original reader question, associate prof left a great comment with several insights, wherein they mentioned that their dean had told them to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. This is annoying and dismissive (also indicative of the likely gender breakdown in that conversation *sigh*), but kind of true. It means that you have to prioritize everything: papers as well as grants, regular and young investigator. Unless you are some sort of grant-writing prodigy and/or don’t have impeccable pedigree (oh, yes, that matters — a lot!), you will end up being rejected more often than not, so there’s no point in spending too much time wondering what you should apply to when the answer is — to everything, all the time, until you get enough money. Then take at most a semester break, and start all over again.

(A good question here is what is enough money. Enough money is enough to support a viable research group, smaller initially, perhaps bigger when you’re more established. Count the number of students and postdocs you envision. Multiply each by the loaded annual pay (loaded=base cost plus fringe benefits plus overhead and, for students, tuition, which is often not overheaded). Add to it 1-3 months of your summer salary (loaded). Add to it the cost of equipment (most should have come from startup), supplies, user fees projected per year. Add to it some money for travel (several trips per year). That’s enough money.)

Make sure you use your startup funds aggressively. Startup is there to help you get the data you need to get funded. Startup is not meant to last forever, and by trying to make it last too long (past, say 3 years) you are effectively strangling your research program. Operate with optimism and do good science with your startup funds in the first 3 years on the tenure track. Get papers out, train your folks, get more data, go give talks, show everyone you’re a force to be reckoned with.

Or, as Edna Mode would say:

Image result for edna mode gif fight win

5 comments

  1. Thank you for the very helpful and thorough response! Many good points that I hadn’t really considered. Submitting the same idea to more than one agency was non-obvious to me, and somehow I feel that I’ve heard very little about DOE funding relative to NSF/DOD, so it’s good to hear about your experiences there too. I am pretty green, having come straight from grad school (I’m in a field where that’s still possible, as you noted) with little proposal writing experience, which makes applying for funding feel like one of the more daunting aspects of the job. Thanks again — now off to spend more start-up, write proposals, and hopefully do some science too 🙂

  2. I’m finishing up my tenure track in Chemistry (crossing fingers as the Letters of Judgement are being written), and this advice is 100% of my experience. I also wrote a regular NSF grant in the fall of Year 2 (after one full year on campus) to get experience being beat up by reviewers, and used that feedback to get my CAREER awarded my first try in Year 3. Got my best ever reviews from applying 3x to DOE Early Career but didn’t get funding, then was funded in a regular program from a specific call they used to broaden their program. DOD young investigator funding by finagling a meeting with a PO while I was finishing my postdoc.

    Just two things to add: in my first year I also saw tons of funding opportunities, and was tempted to branch out in all kinds of different directions. I was worried that I would be stretched too thin conceptually and would muddy the thread of my research, so I wrote a “manifesto” of what I wanted my group’s story to be and made sure that every grant I wrote connected to that manifesto. How would this project contribute to the research that I want to be known for when the tenure judgement comes around? (i.e. not just more papers on peripheral topics) The only time I applied for “side project” funding was when I could use it to build some capability in my lab that would help with the core projects.

    Finally, reiterating the point from another comment that as an assistant prof, you almost certainly have more money than time. If you could personally build a piece of equipment for $20K or buy it for $100K, you should buy it. Your first-year graduate student will take five times as long as you to build it, and that is time they could be using doing science. Note that this advice assumes you are at an R1 institution with that kind of startup.

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